Maybe you should leave that dead tree in your yard…here’s why

Life is a complicated and connected chain comprised of countless threads that are all tightly interwoven. Each one is co-dependent for its survival on the other. A dead tree figures prominently into this intricate web of life. How so, you may ask? Let’s explore this idea together.

As a tree care provider for nearly 50 years, for most of that time, on encountering a dead tree, the automatic, even thoughtless, reaction has been to remove it. However, now we realize that there are times when leaving a dead tree is the right thing to do in order to help preserve the delicate balance of nature and protect the chain of life that depends of that dead tree.

Without a doubt, if leaving a dead tree standing will imperil life and property, it must be removed; this is because it’s a liability and a hazard. However, what if that tree is in a place where it won’t be dangerous to life and property, when it starts to decay and fall apart? Or what if we can reduce the tree in size so that it is no longer a hazard, thus allowing it “live” after it has died?

It’s a fact of nature that dead trees play an important role in the balance of nature. As they are decaying, they provide food, protection and habitation for many things such as the soil, insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, plants and fungi. Next time you’re walking in a forest and you spot a dead tree snag, a rotten log or an old tree stump, don’t take it for granted and pass it by. Rather, stop and look at the microcosm of life that surrounds that piece of rotting wood debris. Notice how many life forms depend on it. In fact, there are some that will spend their entire life in, on and around that piece of rotting wood. They need it, and without it, they will cease to exist.

Consider how a selfless tree keeps on giving life long after the last living cell has died within it. And even then, when it has decomposed and melted into the earth, the topsoil that derives from that tree will continue to give life for hundreds or thousands of years. It takes about a hundred years of plant debris to make an inch of topsoil. Just try to imagine how many trees went into making that one inch. It’s an amazing wonder of nature!

The great thing is that you can be part of helping to preserve the earth by leaving stumps or snags in your garden and even working them into your landscaping. It may take some creativity, but it can be done if you stretch your gardening mind and creatively think outside the traditional box. The forest are full of stumps, dead trees and rotten logs, and we think it’s beautiful. How about importing this idea into your own garden?

Here are some photos I have taken that illustrate the points made above. Please enjoy. The captions will explain what’s going on.

This old tree snag located in the Columbia River Gorge is literally a high-rise apartment complex for all sorts of wildlife. This is how it works. First the woodpeckers arrive and begin to poke a few holes through the bark into a tree that has died. Then fungal pathogens arrive and begin to rot the wood in that hole. Then the woodpecker returns to the softened wood and chisels its way deeper into the tree. This process goes on for a while until the wood is soft enough and the hole is large enough for the woodpecker to make a nest inside the tree. Wood eating insects like termites and ants might get into the act as well and help to enlarge the hole. This helps the woodpecker in two way: the insects provides it with food all the while also acting as excavators helping to enlarge the bird’s home. But this is just the beginning of the repurposing of a dead snag…
Once the woodpecker has used the home, the rotting process continues and the hole gets progressively larger, so that other birds like nuthatches, owls and wood ducks can use it. Eventually, small rodents and mammals will find a home here. As the hole gets expands in size, even larger mammals like raccoons and opossums can make a home here. But there is still more to come. The old snag hasn’t yet fulfilled its final destiny.
Here’s another example of a tree condo for wildlife. A fire burned through this forest years ago, and now these trees are a haven for all types of wildlife. When I took this picture on Mount Hood, there were all sorts of birds flying in and around these trees.
Here we see bracket fungi or conks growing out of the side of this tree on the Oregon coast.
Here see a mosses, lichens and a seedling hemlock growing out of this dead tree snag—the same snag that has woodpecker holes in it. This snag is supporting all types of life and is creating around itself an entire microcosm of nature.
In this amazing photo, we see hundreds of tiny hemlock seedlings taking root in this rotten log, which we refer to as a “nurse log” in that it nurses or provides sustenance for its offspring.
Eventually the seedlings will grow larger…
and larger…
and larger until…
they will look like this…
or finally, like this! You can see this tree and many other such trees that have grown out of old stumps at Beverly Beach State Park on the Oregon coast. Underneath this “octopus tree” are the remnants of an old stump, which acted as a nurse log, to feed the tree that grew out of it. Life from death! The old tree lives on in the new tree. Now think about this. If the old log, snag or stump had been removed, our planet would have one less tree on it, and without trees this earth and all life on it will die! Shouldn’t we be leaving more stumps, snags and logs?
Old stumps engender other forms of life as well like these mosses and lichens. Isn’t this a beautiful piece of nature art?
Old logs aren’t only good for animals and plants, like mosses, but they’re delightful to look at as well. For nature lovers like me, sight like these brings joy, happiness and tranquility to the weary soul. This is a true gift from heaven—and it’s totally free!
Here’s another gift from heaven, but this time at the beach. Here we see that dead trees can even provide life for sea creatures. These Sitka spruce stumps on the Oregon coast are several thousand years old and they’re still giving life!
Thousands of barnacles and other sea creatures live and depend on this snag. There is a whole world living on this old tree stump!

Habitat Trees

An old dead standing tree that has become a habitation for all types of life both flora and fauna is called a habitat tree. The forests are full of such trees, as our discussion and photos above have shown. But how about creating habitat trees in our own yard from trees that have died? How do you know when it is feasible and safe to do so? Your local ISA Certified Arborist will be able to tell you the pros and cons of leaving a habitat tree on your property, and if you choose to create one, they can tell how to do so in a manner where the tree won’t cause you problems years later.

Below are several examples of habitat trees.

We created this habitat tree for a client a few years ago from a fir tree that had died. Now it is literally a high rise apartment complex for woodpeckers. The tree is located between the house and the barn and is a focal point in the middle of a nicely landscaped area. The client wanted us to leave the side limbs as a type of visual yard art. Most of the time we cut the limbs off.
Our local city left this old cottonwood as a habitat tree in one of its natural areas. You can see conks already growing on the tree. Soon woodpeckers will go to work on it transforming it into an avian high-rise condo complex.
We turned this dead alder tree into a habitat tree. The people who live here will be able to bird watch from their deck as this tree gets transformed into its own communal habitat for all forms of wildlife as well as saprophytic fungi.

2 thoughts on “Maybe you should leave that dead tree in your yard…here’s why

  1. Timothy Yocom

    Situations allow, certainly a practical use of space! Great photography and teaching.

  2. Joan

    Hi Nathan, came across your article just as I was deciding on whether to get very large fallen limb from a huge cottonwood hauled off. Rethinking how I can safely keep that limb now so it enhances backyard habitat. Thanks for thoughtful article.


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